“I started using cannabis oil as soon as I found out about the malignant lump in my breast,” says Kelly McQue, a mother and businesswoman from Balito in KwaZulu-Natal. She also did a 40-day water fast, made major changes to her diet and exercise regime, and managed to beat the disease.
South African 'underground'
"I can't say that it was just the cannabis oil that cured the cancer, but I do feel that the speed with which I recovered was due to taking it. It also definitely helped me to heal my post-natal depression [she had recently given birth to her daughter], which was extremely debilitating, and this in turn meant I was mentally strong enough to implement the necessary dietary and exercise changes required."
Read: Marching for medical marijuana
McQue is one of a rapidly growing underground of South Africans who are resorting to oil extracted from marijuana plants. Perhaps the most well-known examples of this informal movement are the late IFP MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, who, as a stage 4 lung cancer patient publically admitted to using cannabis oil and proposed a bill to legalise the use of medical marijuana in South Africa in parliament last year; and advocate Robin Stansham-Ford, another cannabis oil user who succumbed to cancer on the day the High Court approved his application for assisted suicide earlier this month. Both men believed that the oil had extended their lives beyond expectation.
Taking a swipe at conventional medicine
“My grandfather was diagnosed with cancer when he was in his 70s,” explains McQue. “Up until then he had been extremely fit and led an active life. Once he started treatment for the cancer I watched him turn into a shell of his former self. I believe that 'conventional' medicine caused him more harm than good. This was a large reason for my decision to forego the 'modern' options available."
Read: Is there a place for dagga in medicine?
She ended up making her own cannabis oil at a cost of around R2,000 per 50ml and has published a do-it-yourself cannabis oil recipe on her blog. “It's very simple to make – no chemistry involved” – and advises potential users via phone or email.
She says that the feedback from individuals from around the world and increasingly from South Africans has been overwhelmingly positive. “The best responses are from people who have also successfully cured their illness using alternative, natural treatments – that always makes my day!”
Helpful for multiple sclerosis
Gerd Bader is another user and proponent of medical cannabis. As a long-time multiple sclerosis sufferer, he sought respite from years of pain, operations and disability in smoking dagga.
“It was like a miracle: a few drags of a joint and I felt a sense of relief and a clear mind. After seeing how these cannabinoids were helping me, I decided to do extensive research and came across cannabis oil.” He believes that using the oil ended the worst of his multiple sclerosis episodes and initiated overall healing. “From being a paraplegic, I am now walking stronger by the day.”
Bader has since assisted a number of people with epilepsy, cancer, diabetes and other medical complaints who he believes have benefitted greatly from using cannabis oil. He promotes his own cannabis oil product via his website Oil2Health.
Faith in cannabis oil and anecdotal evidence of its efficacy as a medicine are ubiquitous, but is there scientific proof that it really works?
The cannabis (marijuana or dagga) plant contains a wide variety of chemicals called cannabinoids (many of which can also be made synthetically in a laboratory). Among these compounds is one called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is responsible for the mind-altering, psychotropic effect of getting "high" when a person smokes dagga. Many of the other cannabinoids are not psychoactive and do not produce such effects.
Cannabinoid molecules are known to lock onto cannabinoid receptors on the surface of brain cells which are involved in helping to regulate a range of bodily processes, such as heart functioning, mood, memory, appetite, pain sensation and the operation of the immune system.
Read: Top US doctor in favour of medical marijuana
While humans have used various preparations of cannabis for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, the jury of modern scientific research is still out as to its proven benefits.
Artificial cannabinoid compounds have been prescribed to Aids patients to treat vomiting and poor appetite, while research suggests that one particular member of the group, called cannabidiol, has potential in the treatment of Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis, and can significantly reduce the frequency of seizures in epilepsy patients.
When it comes to the cancer-fighting ability of the cannabinoids, many scientific papers have been published since the 1970s, but conclusions are mixed. Some laboratory tests conducted on cell tissue and animals suggest that they may function to bolster the immune system’s defences against cancer, lower the rate at which cancerous cells spread through the body and may even kill them altogether. In other instances, however, cannabinoids have been implicated in detrimental, carcinogenic effects.
Unfortunately there have been rather few controlled human clinical trials and many questions remain. While there are many claims to the effectiveness of the cannabinoids in arresting a variety of cancers, including brain, breast and skin cancer, there is as yet no conclusive scientific proof of this.
When it comes to alleviating the symptoms of cancer and the side-effects of conventional cancer treatments, however, there is substantial documented evidence of the merit of the cannabinoids. They have been used successfully to reduce cancer-related pain, as well as nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.
But is it legal?
“It's still illegal in South Africa – both the plant and the oil,” warns McQue. “Personally I believe the law against cannabis is invalid as you can't outlaw nature. Unfortunately our legal system is outdated and oppressive in this regard. One has to be very, very careful when getting the plant material and who you talk to about it.”
South Africa’s Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act makes the possession of cannabis and its derivatives illegal, with punishments for its contravention typically ranging from fines to imprisonment.
Watch: What you need to know about the legalisation of marijuana in SA
According to McQue, a side-effect of the illegality of cannabis and the social taboo associated with it, is that users often find it hard to share their experiences and tend to follow quite a lonely path. “I don't think it's illegal to share knowledge about cannabis oil and know that it's helping ordinary South Africans from all walks of life who are interested in trying it as an alternative to surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. That makes it worth the risk."
When it is OK to give children medical pot?
Legalising marijuana cuts drug overdose deaths
Medical marijuana reduces epileptic seizures
Image: Medical Cannabis oil ready for consumption by Shutterstock